A brief history of the Denver Garden Railway Society – by Alan Olson
The Denver Garden Railway Society (DGRS) was the first organization of its type in the United States. John Newell, L.A. Kincaid, and Marc Horovitz founded it in 1979. Back in those days, the garden-railroading hobby, as it is practiced in modern times, was young. Not many G-scale model trains were available (especially of American appearance) and relatively few people were interested in model railroading outdoors.
The society attracted a few people as it went along and it soon had a dozen or so — too many for us to keep meeting at people’s houses, as we had been doing. We began setting up temporary tracks at shopping malls for special events, which attracted a few more members. And we started looking for a more public place to hold meetings. In the early years we met at various places, including CA Supply near downtown Denver and even for a brief time at Denver’s Union Station.
For some years prior to this Sidestreet Bannerworks, a small architectural design firm, sponsored an annual small-scale steam-up – for gauge 1 and gauge 0 locomotives. This began to attract attention and people began traveling long distances to attend the event. This was held variously in a warehouse, the garage of a crane company, at a shopping mall, and at Union Station. After a couple of years, it even incorporated a garden-railway tour to local railways.
In 1984, Marc and Barb Horovitz started GARDEN RAILWAYS magazine, which officially took over the sponsorship of the Sidestreet Bannerworks steam-up each year. In 1985 Marc proposed to the DGRS that GARDEN RAILWAYS magazine and the DGRS co-sponsor a national garden-railway convention. This would incorporate the annual steam-up and railway tour. The idea was tossed about and discussed at length and it was finally decided to go ahead with the plan. Thus, the 1st Annual Garden Railway Convention was held in Denver in August of 1985, it having been first proposed in May of the same year! Things happened faster back in those simpler days.
The convention was a great success. It was structured from the beginning much like the conventions are still run today. We had the steam-up, railway tours, clinics, and a dealer hall. The convention was organized by a core group of half a dozen DGRS members. We worked so well together that we decided to do it again the next year. In fact, we hosted it three more times in Denver, with the convention getting bigger and bigger each time. It attracted visitors from all around the United States and many foreign countries. When the fifth one came around we cut it loose, and it’s been traveling around ever since.
Other garden railway societies began to spring up around the country, particularly in California and along the East Coast. The first list of garden-railway societies appeared in the November-December 1987 issue of GARDEN RAILWAYS. There were seven US societies at that time. (Today there are well over 100 in the US alone.)
In 1985, the DGRS participated for the first time in the Colorado Garden & Home Show. This was done in collaboration with the Denver Botanic Gardens and was the biggest project the club had taken on to date. The three-track, three-level railroad was built on real dirt (supplied by the show organizers), in a single day by club members. The Botanic Gardens people provided and planted miniature trees and flowers. The railway was a resounding success and we were asked back for several years afterwards. This first railway was written up in the March-April 1985 issue of GARDEN RAILWAYS magazine. Since then the DGRS has had displays of temporary indoor layouts several times a year at various locations including nurseries, model train shows and at the annual Colorado Home and Garden Show.
The club continued to grow and we finally found a comfortable place to meet at a bank near the Cherry Creek Shopping Center. This was our home for several years until the club outgrew it, with over 100 members at that time. Next we moved to the Emerson Street School and then on to the Glendale Firehouse. By now it had become a solid, cohesive community of friends pursuing a common interest.
The Garden Railway Convention returned to Denver in 1994 for the 10th annual gathering. In September of the same year the Colorado Railroad Museum agreed to allow the DGRS to build a garden railway as a permanent display. It started as a simple 10’ diameter loop and has expanded several times to it’s present size, it is among the favorite exhibits at the museum. Many DGRS members operate trains at the garden railway on 7 separate loops including two dedicated to live steam. The museum garden railway operates in conjunction with special events including the very popular “Day Out with Thomas”. This has developed into a very strong relationship between the museum and the DGRS.
Most of our meetings feature presentations by members or guests on topics relating to the garden railway hobby and of course we have the popular show and tell. Several hands-on how to clinics are held at various locations where topics may include weathering, structure building, gardening, landscaping, water features, track work or electronics.
In 2004 the DGRS hosted the very popular 20th Annual convention that highlighted just how sophisticated the hobby has become. Our group of about 200 members, consider ourselves very fortunate that the club exists in an area rich in railroad history and in a beautiful Colorado setting. It seems like the DGRS and the garden railroad hobby both have a bright future.